Ricardo and me on Monday night
It's funny how Facebook brings people together. There are so many people I would have lost touch with if it weren't for Facebook, and for that I'm really thankful. Ricardo is one of those people.
Ricardo and I met in the strangest of places: at the Federal Correctional Institution in Miami, Florida. I was 22 and on a fellowship teaching Poetry/Creative Writing in prisons around the country, and I was so excited about what I was doing. I've never felt like I had more purpose than I did that year teaching in prisons and jails. I had spent the first third of my fellowship year at San Quentin State Prison out here in the Bay Area, was teaching at the FCI in Miami for the second third, and later headed off to New England to spend the last third of the year teaching at various prisons and jails in Vermont.
Often, when you're a teacher, you have a student whose passion and aptitude is far above the norm. That student stands out as exceptional: an exceptional learner, an exceptional person, any kind of exceptional, really. Ricardo was all of those things. He had never written a poem in English before taking my class, and before I knew it, he was writing sonnets and sestinas and villanelles with amazing fluency and skill. It was so inspiring, and I was so lucky. When I left the federal prison in Miami, I was really sad that Ricardo wouldn't have a poetry class anymore. I knew how much it meant to him.
Given that he had four more years in prison and I'd moved across the country, we lost touch. I often wondered how he was doing, though: if he'd found a good job, how his family was, if he'd stayed out of prison. And then one day last fall, I got a Facebook friend request from him. It was so nice to hear that he and his family were doing wonderfully: he had a successful business, a great wife, and was expecting his third daughter.
This past week, Ricardo and his beautiful family were visiting California. They all came over for dinner on Monday night, and you'd never know it had been nine years since we'd seen each other. We shared food and wine, reminisced about our poetry class, and talked about our lives.
Ricardo, his wife Maryzol, me, Matt, & their middle daughter, Alex
When they left, Matt said to me: "Wow, they're an incredible family." Their love and openness is palpable, their daughters are beautiful, and I'm lucky to have them as friends.
So many things have been swirling around in my head since Monday night. Among them:
*How many people would write Ricardo off because of his time spent in federal prison?
*In this vast and changing world, how unlikely that Ricardo and I would get the chance to reconnect almost a decade later, across the country from where we first met?
*Although he and I only knew each other for four months back in 2004, isn't it amazing how much that class meant to each of us?
It's students (and people!) like Ricardo that make it all worth it.
My Days Have Fifteen Minutes
Ricardo Martinez, FCI Miami, 2004
The line of men waiting for an empty phone
gets shorter with the passing of each instant:
my sunrise is near. I can already hear some daring
birds chirping and flapping their wings in the dawning sky,
as they greet friendly branches in their journeys
through different trees. The sun begins to show its glittering
crown, just when her infant voice glides through the telephone
line, penetrating my left eardrum, like nourishing
seeds entering a nightingale's beak. She calls me papi,
and then she mumbles some words, which meaning
I can hardly decipher. I hear about the last, risky
adventures of Mulan, as the sun marches swiftly
through its usual path. We sing together "El Payaso Pimpim,"
the infant tune about the famous clown who pinched
his red, bulging nose to make children laugh; our voices
embracing each other, as they travel toward
their longed-for destination. A recorded female voice
interrupts us to remind her that the caller
belongs to a federal prison: This is no longer your dad,
she would interpret if she were a year older.
It's noon when I ask for a kiss; my mind quickly picturing
her tiny, wrinkled lips forming a microscopic circle,
inhaling a small quantity of air, as a kissing sound
breaches my ear's spiraling grooves and takes a dwelling
in the silkiest fiber of my heart. A beeping sound
reminds me that the call will end in less than a minute,
as I gaze at the sun's face hiding behind the highest mountain,
like a murderer who can't stand the accusing glance
of the victim's relatives. I hear her tender voice
reminding me that she loves me, te quiero papi;
her innocent mind unaware of the unwelcome nightfall
that approaches to engulf us in its gloomy shadow.
Only when I say goodbye does she realize that my day
is ending. A weeping sound escapes her mouth, escorting
the only word I wish would not exist in dictionaries:
Nooo, she cries, as the unmerciful phone line
leaves us speaking to ourselves.